Nonprofit Executive Dir

Roles and Responsibilities of a Nonprofit Executive Director

Roles and Responsibilities of a Nonprofit Executive Director


Article Donated by Randolph Grubb for the purpose of Leadership Training



The role of today’s nonprofit Executive Director (ED) is both exciting and challenging. The purpose of this paper is to outline the challenging roles faced by today’s ED. A nonprofit ED is charged with not only the duties of the normal for-profit CEO, but stringent fund-raising and volunteer recruitment efforts as well, making it a task sought by few. He or she also takes on the image of the organization by being its major spokesperson to the world, not to mention the challenges between balancing work and home life with such a demanding position. This is not a job for the faint of heart, but it can be incredibly rewarding if the right balance can be found.



In the world of nonprofit management, the Executive Director (ED) sits atop the hierarchal chain of command. Much like the for-profit CEO, the ED oversees the entire operation of the nonprofit organization. Furthermore, they are temporary caretakers of an organization that will likely long outlive their tenure as leader. There are multiple roles and responsibilities involved in serving as an ED, but there is no more important responsibility than a love for the mission of the nonprofit while relating to their work on a profoundly personal basis. This is the single caveat that separates the for-profit CEO from the nonprofit Executive Director. The for-profit CEO can distance themselves personally from the identity of the organization which they run, but the nonprofit ED has no such luxury. More times than not, the ED finds his/her identity in the organization which they serve. This solitary truth speaks volumes to their work ethic and their inability to relate monetary value to it. As in any job the work becomes obtrusive and even detestable at times, but a love for what they do and relating their identity to it sets the nonprofit ED apart.


There are multiple roles and responsibilities in serving as an ED of any nonprofit organization. For instance, the ED acts as a visionary, a change agent, a relationship builder, a community creator, and a resource wizard, among others. While these roles may sound rather commonplace for someone in a leadership position, they are especially challenging to the ED who has to fulfill these roles with limited resources while on a shoestring budget. Furthermore, as they serve in their role, they have a personal responsibility to oversee not only their personal growth, but also that of their staff as well. Finally, as any other member of today’s fast paced and ever changing workforce, they have to effectively manage the balance between their work and home lives. This responsibility is particularly challenging to the ED because the line between work and home life is often blurred by the fact that their personal lives reflect the identity of the organization which they serve. However, a healthy balance is crucial in achieving success as a nonprofit leader.


Role #1: Visionary


As a visionary for the organization, the ED is charged with motivating and inspiring not only their staff and volunteers, but the Board of Directors as well. The ED must have a passion for the mission of their organization and have a vision of what that mission can attain. Focus is attained through developing a strong and realistic strategic plan encompassing much thought and evaluation. “The vision must be shared by people inside and outside the organization, so it must be articulated, understood, massaged, and written down for all to see” (Carlson & Donohoe, 2003, p. 39).




The first responsibility of the nonprofit ED in their role as a visionary is motivation. Nonprofit organizations are often filled with vibrant, self-starting employees and volunteers, however this is not always the case. Playing the role of a motivator is crucial to the nonprofit ED. A primary means of motivation is by sharing your vision for the future of the organization. Obviously, the leader of any organization, be it for-profit or nonprofit, has a vision of what they expect the organization to attain while under their leadership. Employees need to have confidence that the leadership in place has a vision and knows how to attain that vision through proper actions. With a shared vision, employees and volunteers alike are moved to action, however, this is not the only means of motivation.

Forsyth (2006) offers several additional ways to motivate your staff to action. He states that “people are classically motivated by achievement, recognition, the work itself, advancement and growth” (Forsyth, 2006, p 22). People long to be recognized for their achievements in life and this naturally transfers into the workplace. A simple handshake and a hearty “job well done” go a long way to making employees feel as if they are meeting or exceeding the requirements of their job. However, on the flip side, if there is no recognition in the workplace, employees become demoralized and morale quickly drops.


Forsyth (2006) touches on a topic of particular interest to the ED in stating that people are classically motivated by the work itself. This is especially true in the nonprofit organization where many of the employees, and all of the volunteers, are not motivated by monetary gain, but by the work itself. Therefore it is especially vital to the ED to ensure that their work is channeled in a way to help the organization achieve the vision which has been lain out. If simply sharing the vision motivates people, then making them feel like their work is helping the organization achieve its vision is a win-win situation for all.




Another responsibility of the ED in their role as a visionary is providing inspiration to all involved in the mission of the organization. Inspiration and motivation work hand in hand. Inspiration is a powerful tool in the hands of those who know how to wield its power. In the sixties our nation became inspired by John F. Kennedy because of how effective he was at sharing his vision for the future of our great country. The nonprofit ED is no different. Though they have a smaller audience with much fewer resources than John Kennedy, they can wield the same power he did in the sixties. The greatest way to inspire others is through a shared vision. Look at what our nation accomplished when Kennedy shared his vision of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of the decade, an accomplishment many thought was impossible. Yet on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong left the lunar module “Eagle” to make man’s first footsteps on the moon, making Kennedy’s vision a reality (NASA, 2007).


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